Total Wine founder’s $2.4 billion family wealth fuels Senate run
U.S. Rep. David Trone often boasts that he doesn’t take money from corporations or super PACs. It helps that he doesn’t need to.
The Maryland Democrat, who’s running for the Senate seat being vacated by Ben Cardin, is co-owner of Total Wine & More, an alcohol retail empire worth an estimated $2.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, which is valuing the business for the first time.
Trone, 68, who founded the company and owns it along with his brother Robert and their families, stepped down as CEO in 2015 and is now among the richest members of Congress. The company’s revenue rose to more than $5.5 billion in 2022, Robert said in a 2023 interview, more than double from five years earlier.
Total Wine spent lavishly and expanded aggressively on the road to becoming a retailing behemoth, and Trone has embraced a similar playbook in seeking public office. In three of his four congressional runs — 2016, 2018 and 2022 — he was the largest self-funder of any House candidate, according to OpenSecrets data, and has spent more than $50 million of his own money on campaigns so far.
His Senate bid will be a new test of how much money can buy in politics in what’s shaping up to be a competitive primary against Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, a Black Democrat who has racked up endorsements including Emily’s List. Since announcing his candidacy in May, Trone has lent his campaign about $10 million and spent nearly half of it, according to Federal Election Commission records. He’s signaled that he’s willing to spend tens of millions more.
“David has never taken a nickel in political contributions from lobbyists or political action committees,” Jared DeWese, a spokesperson for Trone's campaign, said in an emailed statement. “That independence allows him to act on his values and address issues that matter to Maryland families rather than individuals and groups that try to manipulate the legislative process.”
Trone declined through a campaign spokesperson to be interviewed for this story. To develop the $2.4 billion valuation, Bloomberg considered Total Wine's publicly available revenue figures, market share data and the valuation of a competitor, BevMo!, which was acquired in 2020.
Edward Cooper, a spokesperson for Total Wine, said the Bethesda, Maryland-based company doesn’t comment on its financials or ownership structure.
FARM TO FORTUNE
Trone grew up on a struggling farm along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, where he cleaned hog pens and, at least for a while, had an outhouse for a bathroom. His family eventually went bankrupt and lost the farm when he was 28.
In 1984, Trone opened a small beer store while still in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. He was arrested on three occasions over charges that he circumvented the state’s alcohol regulations. All charges were eventually dropped, though Trone still had to pay millions in legal fees. The experience made him a longtime supporter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and in 2015 he gave the group $15 million to endow a center focused on reducing the U.S. prison population.
“I had the resources and the representation to fight an injustice and win,” he said in a statement at the time.
Leaving Pennsylvania behind, the brothers opened their first wine and spirits store in Delaware in 1991 and began an expansion campaign from there. “We are vilified by our competitors, and we are loved by the consumers,” Trone told The Washington Post in 2016.
Total Wine is the now the country’s largest independent alcohol retailer, with 259 stores in 28 states.
The company recently hired a family office director to act as “a trusted financial adviser for Total Wine’s families and provide significant value as the families’ needs continue to grow and diversify,” according to the job listing.
David Trone reported at least $20 million in personal income last year from the many branches of the Total Wine business in public disclosure filings, but that’s likely understating his wealth. Members of Congress report income in bands, such as $100,001 to $1 million or $1,000,001 to $5 million, for each source. Any amount over $5 million, such as the income Trone generates from his stores in New York and New Jersey, is listed as more than $5 million with no upper bound. (Bloomberg used the lower boundary of each band to tally an income minimum.)
In total, Trone has reported more than $110 million in income during his tenure in Congress, a number that’s a limited picture of his finances. He also has a $5 million to $25 million line of credit.
Total Wine’s success has buoyed the Trones’ fortunes, with several family members working for the business. The closely held firm also funnels money into David Trone’s personal philanthropy, including $15 million to the family foundation in 2020.
Trone, who was raised Lutheran but whose wife and four children are Jewish, donates frequently to Jewish causes and is an outspoken opponent of efforts to boycott or divest from Israel. He’s also given millions to higher education, including his alma maters, Furman University and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, while his family foundation is also funding the first three years of a Johns Hopkins Medicine clinic studying a rare bladder cancer.
Total Wine’s size has drawn comparisons to Amazon.com Inc.’s market dominance, with the retailer able to sell wine and spirits at cheaper prices because of its leverage with suppliers. When Trone’s daughter Michelle proposed opening a Total Wine-branded store in Queens in 2019, it drew opposition from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democrat, and local politicians. A state board rejected the proposal.
The company is no stranger to such fights. Last year, Trone-owned Colorado Fine Wines & Spirits gave about $12 million to a group supporting an initiative expanding the number of liquor licenses an individual could hold, state records show. Smaller liquor stores fought the measure, saying Total Wine would get an unfair advantage. Trone personally donated about $900,000 to the committee while a member of Congress, state records show.
Trone has said he was inspired to enter politics because he wanted to use his business experience to solve practical problems. He’s run on a platform prioritizing criminal justice reform, expanding mental health services and addressing the opioid epidemic. He spent millions of dollars on his first race in 2016, eventually losing a primary to Rep. Jamie Raskin. He’s since had more success.
Last year, Trone spent about $10 million to win Maryland’s 6th Congressional seat, while Republican opponent Neil Parrott spent roughly $1.2 million, according to OpenSecrets data. Much of Trone’s money was used to buy advertising in the expensive Washington area, said Parrott. “He just saturated the market — $10 million can do a lot,” he said.
Trone looks to be following the same script in his Senate race. He’s used the $10 million he lent his campaign to spend heavily on advertising, according to FEC records. Alsobrooks, 52, has raised about $3.3 million, while progressive Democrat Will Jawando brought in more than $750,000 before dropping out of the race Friday.
“I don't believe David Trone’s millions are going to be able to buy this race,” said Jawando, 41, a Montgomery County council member. A spokesman for his campaign declined to say whether money was a factor in Jawando’s decision.